Relief with Gladiators Carver: Unknown

ca. 2nd century A.D.

Ancient Art

On view, 1st floor, Ancient Art

Gladiatorial games originated as funerary rites in which the deceased was celebrated through physical competitions. For this reason, relief depictions of gladiatorial combat were sometimes used as grave markers—probably not for gladiators themselves, but for those whose lives such games may have commemorated. The games were particularly popular during the Roman Empire; in fact, most of the known funerary depictions of gladiators are Imperial in date. As government sponsorship grew in the Empire, the games took on political overtones. By staging massive and elaborate series of combats that often lasted for months and involved the slaughter of scores of men and wild animals in arenas throughout the empire, the Romans culturally unified their territory and affirmed their power, both to create such dramatic spectacles, and over life and death themselves.

Gladiators fought in armor and with weapons specific to different types of warriors. The two figures on this relief, which is probably from a funeral stele, are each armed with a short sword and equipped with a helmet; a long, rectangular shield; a manica (arm guard) on the right arm; and an ocrea (leg guard) on the left leg. The helmet styles differentiate the gladiators: the one with the crested, fish-like helmet is a murmillio (from a Greek word for fish); the other figure, with a large, rounded helmet is a provocator, a type of gladiator also armed with a gladius, but with a shorter shield. On the relief the same pair of figures appears four times in three registers, each time in a different position of combat. Presumably, this represents the progression of a contest, and would have originally ended with one of the figures—most likely the provocator—admitting defeat and submitting to the judgement of the crowd. Roman depictions of gladiators often showed the combatants poised at the instant where combat stopped for the crowd to decide whether or not to spare the loser, emphasizing the spectators' active control over life and death.




48 1/4 × 31 9/16 × 2 7/16 in. (122.6 × 80.2 × 6.2 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Prof. William Kelly Simpson, B.A. 1947, M.A. 1948, Ph.D. 1954

Accession Number





Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of records is ongoing.



Possibly Axel Guttmann (1944–2001), Berlin; by exchange with a European dealer, about 1992 [see note 1]; sale, Christie's, New York, December 7, 2000, lot 637; probably sold through Frederick Schultz, Ancient Art, New York, to William Kelly Simpson, Katonah, N.Y., December 7, 2000 (on loan to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 2001–09); given to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 2009

Note 1: According to a representative from Christie’s auction house, “Gladiator Relief” was consigned by a European dealer, who acquired the object via an exchange with Axel Guttmann, about 1992. (email from Christie’s to the Gallery, May 28, 2021, copy in curatorial file)

This work appears on our "Antiquities and Archaeological Material with Provenance Documentation Gaps" page.
  • Pablo Molina Ortiz, "Un Nuevo Emparejamiento Gladitorio Procedente de Éfeso," Espacio, Tiempo y Forma (2014), 101–7, fig. 1,2,3
  • "Acquisitions," Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: Online Supplement (accessed 2012), 28
  • Christie's New York, New York, Christie's New York Antiquities, sale cat. (December 7, 2000), 175, lot. 637
Object copyright
Additional information


Inscription in Greek above top register \r\n\r\nTranslation:\r\n"Nympheros from Cappadocia, of the first gladiatorial squad, Parthenopaios from Cappadocia, of the first gladiatorial squad"

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